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Content check, blocked accounts: Social media firms face panel firewall

Govt plans to further tighten intermediary rules via grievance committees

“The central government shall constitute one or more grievance appellate committees,” the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) said in a draft notification.
“The central government shall constitute one or more grievance appellate committees,” the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) said in a draft notification.

Another round of tussle between the government and social media firms like Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc, may be in the offing as the former plans to further tighten intermediary rules by constituting grievance appellate committees. These committees would look into complaints relating to blocking of content or accounts by social media firms.

“The central government shall constitute one or more grievance appellate committees,” the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) said in a draft notification.

Any person aggrieved by an order made by the grievance officer may appeal to the grievance appellate committee having jurisdiction in the matter within a period of 30 days of receipt of communication from the grievance officer,” the notification further states.

The committee would deal with such appeal expeditiously and make an endeavour to dispose of the matter within 30 days from the date of receipt of the appeal. Every order passed by the committee will be complied with by the concerned intermediary, the draft notification states.

Providing the rationale for the committee, the government said that it is to provide an alternative to a user to file an appeal against the decision of a grievance officer rather than directly going to the court of law. Hence, the user can appeal to the said committee in case of his dissatisfaction with the grievance officer’s order and seek an alternative redressal mechanism. However, the user has the right to seek judicial remedy at any time.

Currently, users move courts directly in case of objections to any content or their accounts being blocked. By creating grievance appellate committees, the government is creating an adjudicating body between the grievance redressal officers of social media firms and courts.

However, social media firms and even civil society activists are likely to object to this move as it would be seen as the government’s attempt at silencing its critics. Social media firms feel that intermediary rules were made stricter only last year, but now the government is now trying to micro-manage them. Last year, they were made to appoint a set of officers to deal with complaints and objectionable content.

In fact, last year, after the new intermediary rules came into effect there was a standoff between government and Twitter over removal and blocking of certain accounts.

“How can the government-constituted grievance appellate committees objectively sit in judgment over any content which is critical of government,” asked a lawyer. “There are numerous quarrels on social media platforms between people belonging to different ideological groups and any action against members who violate laid down guidelines is best taken by the platform itself or courts of law. The government should not get into it,” the lawyer added.

Another problem which may arise is whether the jurisdiction of such committees should vest only within the country or even beyond it. For instance, whether any content that needs to be blocked or unblocked should be applicable only in India or internationally.

Last year, the government had brought about a comprehensive set of new guidelines as part of the Information Technology (IT) Act to regulate social media intermediaries as well as over-the-top platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and stand-alone digital media outlets. It had tightened some clauses under Section 69A of the IT Act while mandating firms to appoint grievance redressal officers in the country and resolve consumer grievances within a specific time period, as well as have designated nodal officers for coordination with the government over law and order matters.

Further, the rules stipulated that any complaint for removal of information or communication links shall be redressed within 72 hours and the social media firm should develop appropriate safeguards to avoid any misuse by users.

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